Friday, July 23, 2010

bοrges, russell, NPR.

i like reading bοrges, if only as an example of how mathematιcal ideas, even mathematιcs [1], can be transformed into arts and culture.

that said, while reading this NPR article about bοrges i kept waiting for some reference to set theory and maths, such as cantοr's diagοnal argument or russell's paradοx.

none appeared, though. i was surprised, especially when they referred to ideas that are clearly mathematιcal:
The Library of Babel is different from any other library. In it, we find all books that have been written and those that will be written, those that make sense and completely absurd ones, works that group meaningless sequences of letters compiled into random arrangements with no purpose whatsoever.

So, it’s impossible to find a single book that includes all other books, since its existence implies in the existence of another book that includes it.

Complete knowledge is impossible.
is it silly to fuss about ideas and giving due credit, when the audience is a general, non-academic one?

maybe i'm asking for too much, being unfair. the article appeared, after all, in a blog called "cosmos and culture" and the blogroll consists of scientists. maybe they don't know the references that we mathematicians know, and took russell's idea as folklore.

the article has the right intent, at least: an interesting idea is worth sharing .. but i can't help but feel territorial:
admittedly, there's a larger issue here. what we mathematicιans call "mathematιcs" is different from what the public thinks mathematιcs is.

it can be difficult for us to explain what "mathematιcs" is, much less what we specifically do for a living. to the layperson, we do sound a lot like philosophers.

from experience, the easiest way to popularise mathematιcs is through examples, such as russell's paradox or why there are infinitely many primes.

so when a physicist casually discusses logical paradoxes to the general public, then in the popular opinion, "these ideas must surely come from physics," a field which has never had any problems with its popular image of einsteins and feynmans.

it means that, suddenly, we mathematιcians have one less idea to popularise. in the public mind, our subject has just gotten smaller and more mysterious.
after so many years in this job, i still hate being miscategorised and misunderstood. physicists, economists, historians, writers, doctors, artists, engineers: the public recognises who they are ..

.. whereas we mathematicians must constantly remind the world that we exist.

in other news, the thoughts from this past week seem to be coming together. yesterday i lateχ'ed for many straight hours.

this is ambitious -- especially because i still need a lemma or two -- but i hope to run the numerics next week.

[1] as an example, here is an excerpt from bοrges's short story "tlön, uqbar, orbis tertius":
"i remember him in the corridor of the hotel, a mathematics textbook in his hand, gazing now and again at the passing colours of the sky. one afternoon, we discussed the duodecimal numerical system (in which twelve is written 10). ashe said that as a matter of fact, he was transcribing some duodecimal tables, i forget which, into sexagesimals (in which sixty is written 10), adding that this work had been commissioned b a norwegian in rio grande do sul."

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